On a recent afternoon downtown at California Plaza, as the stock market plunges and the temperature soars, local businesspeople and tourists sip cappuccinos in the sunlight--their eyes on the upper reaches of the three-level fountain, where a group splashes around in suit jackets draped over their bathing suits. The water is littered with abandoned computer keyboards and telephones, beaten-up office desks and brightly colored swivel chairs.
"Two minutes!" shouts a woman in bike shorts, standing knee-deep in the fountain. "Hurry! Come on! Come on! Come on!" Two minutes, that is, until the thrice-hourly 10,000-gallon deluge that floods the California Plaza Watercourt Fountain, the site of choreographer Heidi Duckler's upcoming piece, "Liquid Assets," which will be premiered here Friday and Saturday.
All of L.A.'s a stage for choreographer Duckler. A kind of self-taught urban anthropologist, she turns her site explorations into cutting-edge dance theater that has taken her audiences to a Laundromat in Santa Monica, a gas station in the Valley, a patch of the Los Angeles River, a high school locker room in Culver City and the old Lincoln Heights jail. Highly collaborative, she uses dancers, actors, singers and musicians to incorporate movement, visual text projections and music into her work. While some choreographers periodically take their dances into non-theater environments, Duckler claims to be the only one making dances from the sites themselves.
"No one quite understands why we're doing what we're doing," says Duckler, 45, a fair-haired mother of three who lives in Sherman Oaks with her real estate developer husband. "[They ask], 'Why are you doing this?' And I think it's a good question, actually," she says, laughing her high-pitched laugh. "I don't know, except that I know how. I've always just sort of jumped into things, I'm kind of impulsive, I'm very hands-on, I'm not a theorist. I hate to talk in generalities, but it seems like a lot of artists prefer a certain distance, really want control of what's going on, and that's not possible in this work. A lot of it is the unknown, the unexpected, and you have to be ready for that."
A Portland, Ore., native who moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to get her master's degree in dance from UCLA, Duckler claims that her work--which she often describes as "intuitive" and "organic"--began as an exploration of the city she now calls home.
Earlier, at UCLA, she became "very interested in the visual arts, the whole Rauschenberg era of found objects and how to incorporate those into works of art. I started to do that with my own work, and the work became about real life. It seemed like a natural progression to take the work into a real place."
In 1985, Duckler founded Collage Dance Theatre, and in 1987 produced the first in her series of "urban extinction" works--"Laundromatinee"--at the Thrifty Wash in Santa Monica. Since then, she has developed a small but loyal local following.
Last summer's "Most Wanted," which hauled audience members by sheriff's van into jail, won the choreographer local recognition in the form of several Lester Horton Dance Awards.
"I was so touched because I've always been kind of on the periphery of the dance world," she says. "They'd always go, 'Oh well, you know Heidi's doing something outrageous, but is it dance?' "
"There's something uniquely L.A. about the pop culture sensibility of the work," says B.J. Krivanek, a visual artist based in Chicago and Los Angeles, who often collaborates with Duckler. (For "Liquid Assets," he has designed low-tech black-and-white projections of business terms culled from the Wall Street Journal such as "common stock," "defined interest" and "key losers/winners.") "L.A. is still kind of a frontier town, there's not such an ossified cultural structure as New York or Chicago. There's a certain freedom she takes advantage of. It took her a long time to gain acceptance in the dance community in L.A., but it was more likely to happen in L.A. than in New York."
A pilgrimage to California Plaza, nestled between monolithic high-rises on South Grand Avenue, might be achieved by car. Or by taking the Metro to Pershing Square, walking across the street, and riding the world's shortest incorporated railroad, Angel's Flight, to the top of the hill.
"Liquid Assets" is a commission of Grand Performances, the nonprofit organization in charge of programming for the outdoor space. Collage Dance Theatre isn't the first dance company to use the site, but, says Grand Performances' artistic director, Michael Alexander, "Others have dealt with the space from an architectural point of view--I don't think any have been as interested in dealing with the cultural context of the space, with what it means to be in the center of a large financial district."
While Duckler is more apt to talk in terms of instinct and emotion--"I need to find a site that I connect to on an emotional level. I wouldn't want to do this work just anywhere"--others note the increasingly complex scope of her site explorations. "As she gets into more demographically, culturally, politically, socially based work," says local architect Scott Johnson, a longtime observer, "she's evolved from being more formalistic to being more process-oriented. She's begun to use the more political strategy of engaging groups that have something to say about a particular place or activity, that show the relationship to the culture. The form grows out of that."
Her 1995 "Mother Ditch," set on the banks and in the water of the L.A. River in Atwater Village, involved local Native American elders, a motorcycle gang and accordion players to reflect this obscure slice of Los Angeles.
Of California Plaza, Duckler says: "It's situated right in the heart of a financial district, so it seemed natural that it had to comment on that. Then of course there's the water, and I started thinking of the flood of the market; a dip in the market; a plunge in the market; liquidate your stocks. . . . I started writing down words," she says, brainstorming with her "No. 1 collaborator," her sister Merridawn, a writer who lives in Portland and is composing lyrics to be sung by a choir for the production.
To study the community that inhabits Cal Plaza, the choreographer sat among the lunchtime crowd, studying gestures and watching interactions. She read histories of the crash of 1929 and daydreamed about Noah and the ark. She noted the fountain's cycles, and watched her kids swim.
"Whatever else I'm doing is filtering into this piece," she says. "That's what's so fun about it, I'm learning as I'm creating."
Duckler and her intrepid company, made up of a core of 10 freelance dancers, will have about four weeks to create the work. "We kind of make [the site] home," she says after rehearsal, as the sunset begins to color the fountain water orange.
"For instance, these chairs are in the piece because they [happened to be] here, not because I thought of it beforehand. You just never know what is going to work, and the best-laid plans . . . may not necessarily be what is the end result.
"In the first rehearsal we do an exploration . . . we play!" she says. The dancers began to climb the columns and hang upside down, which sent worried men down from the high-rises. "There was hysteria about whether we had the proper OK. . . . They were concerned that every Tom, Joe and Harry would come [into] the fountain."
Grand Performances' Alexander explains that an important feature of the programming at Cal Plaza is the "accidental audience" that develops during the rehearsal process. If you sit there long enough, you begin to wonder if the super-tanned tourists snapping photos or the old lady with dark shades and pink shoes walking in circles is really part of the show.
"There's this funny boundary between what's real and what isn't, because it's all blurred," Duckler admits. When dancer Susan Kawashima slipped at one "Liquid Assets" rehearsal and cut her leg, the dancers carried her out and "people who had been watching the rehearsal started to clap," says Duckler. "They thought it was part of the show."
For Kawashima, 44, who has been dancing with Collage since 1990, accidents are just part of the process. "A lot of the movement does come from just exploring the space. She doesn't tell us too much in the beginning, because she wants us to come up with what it means to us," she says.
Says self-confessed Collage groupie Marjorie Gross of Westwood: "For us it's been an incredible journey into parts of Los Angeles we've never been to. It makes you think of what else goes on there and what it will revert back to when the piece is done."
Johnson believes Duckler's work is reflective of the city itself: "As difficult a place as L.A. is to live and appreciate, it is one of the most wildly, intensely creative places in the world," he says, adding that Duckler's work "expresses that conundrum."
Duckler insists that she doesn't have an agenda when it comes to what her audience will experience. "Ideally it should create impressions within them that are unexpected. When you're dealing with something this different, it opens up people. I don't really want to manipulate [the audience]. It's more of a Zen thing--make it, and they will come.
"The production manager told me one of the corporate people who has been watching from his office window said that watching the piece is like eating sushi: It's the kind of thing that at first you think you may not like, but the more you eat it," she says, giggling, "the more you enjoy it." *
"LIQUID ASSETS," California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. Dates: Plays Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Prices: Free. Phone: (818) 784-8669.